Prejudice in America, reality-style

In post-Sept. 11 America, if four Middle Easterners stepped off an airplane in Washington, D.C., it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine questions looming in the thoughts of Americans nearby: “Are they terrorists?” “Is that bump under his shirt his belly or a bomb?”

Middle Easterners are well aware of these stereotypes. And it works both ways.

“We have a bad picture of this country from the Middle East,” says Ali Amr, a 24-year-old Egyptian. “After 9/11 most of the media in the Middle East say, ‘You are not going to be safe in the United States, you’ll maybe go to the FBI or CIA.’ ”

Amr is one of four Arabs cast in a Sundance Channel series that investigates such stigmas. The show, “On the Road in America,” takes four English-speaking Middle Eastern strangers throughout America for two months. Their RV makes stops in D.C., New York City, Chicago, Mississippi, Montana, Los Angeles and Big Sur, Calif. “On the Road in America” airs on the Sundance channel tonight at 9 p.m.

“We needed to show a more nuanced, accurate representation of the United States beyond what they see in the media,” said Leon Shahabian, an executive producer of the series. He also helped create it with Academy Award-nominated producer Jerome Gary.

After interviewing more than 600 Arabs throughout the Middle East, the production team found four people who exemplified the socioeconomic, geographic and cultural diversity they were searching for — and who, of course, had to be charismatic.

Besides Amr, the cast includes Sanad al Kubaissi, a 20-year-old Saudi Arabian attending college in Dubai; Mohamed Abou-Ghazal, a 27-year-old Jordanian who has lived most of his life in Lebanon and studied medicine at the American University of Beirut; and Lara Abou Saifan, 32, the series’ production assistant, a Palestinian from Lebanon.

The 12-part series, shot in 2006, opens in Washington, D.C., and immediately thrusts the four into the heart of the nation’s capital as they volunteer with a mayoral campaign, discover Ben’s Chili Bowl, and dine with Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Sam Farr (D-Calif.).

The first episode dawdles slightly, with an unsteady cohesiveness between the cast and the camera crew. The second episode, shot in Manhattan, stumbles too, as the subjects figure out just what they have gotten themselves into.

Episode three brings them to Chicago as crewmembers take turns driving, with one of the casting criteria being an international driver’s license. It’s not until episode four, three weeks into the journey, that they arrive in Mississippi and the series finds its footing.

This is due partly to the cast and crew becoming comfortable with one another, but the extreme shift in culture is also key. What had been a relatively warm reception in the three metropolises turns into a more diverse set of opinions that leaves Amr confused.

“People in the South feel very differently than people in big cities,” said Amr. “I had a conversation with a man in a bar without the cameras there, and I told him I am from Egypt and he told me that I wasn’t welcome here in this country.”

As if hammering home the core message of the show — that harsh prejudices exist on both sides of the Atlantic — Richard Fairbanks, the chairman of Layalina, the show’s production company, chimes in.

“This never happens to Americans who go to the Middle East,” Fairbanks says sarcastically.

Fairbanks founded the nonprofit Layalina, which along with Visionaire Media of Los Angeles produced the show. No stranger to the Middle East, Fairbanks previously was a Mideast peace negotiator, ambassador-at-large, and assistant secretary of state for congressional relations during the Reagan administration.

“Having spent time in the Middle East, my view is that television is the most pervasive medium out there,” Fairbanks said. “But what they see is ‘The Jerry Springer Show,’ reruns of ‘Dallas’ and shoot-’em-up movies. I mean, what do you expect them to think of the United States? That’s the image we project. And so we’re trying to present a different image.”

The series, which worked on the low budget of $1.8 million, received 4.5 million viewers per episode in its debut on the Middle East Broadcasting Centre network in 2007, according to a survey by Ipsos-Stat, a European polling company. The show spread with no publicity and only by word of mouth as it grew by 1 million viewers in the first four months. It eventually re-aired twice in its entirety.

A main point of conflict erupted in the show’s beginning weeks when the Palestinian Saifan discovered cameraman Guy Livneh was Israeli.

“I want people to think more before they judge; that’s a big part of my personal experience in the show,” said Saifan.

Before coming to America, Saifan loathed Israelis because of the ongoing conflict over rights to land to which both Israel and Palestine lay claim. She never thought she would ever speak to an Israeli. But two months and 24 states later, Saifan and Livneh were not only talking peacefully about the contentious situation, they said they loved each other as friends.

Saifan and Amr have received an overall warm welcome with their newfound fame and open attitude. Yet, Amr said, some at home are reluctant to accept his warm testimonials.

“When I start to say anything positive about this country, they say, ‘Ali, stop talking, the American people [are brainwashing you],” said Amr of his Egyptian friends.

Amr explained the politics he hears back home. “If you’re American and traveling in the Middle East, the first question that people are going to ask you is, ‘You are voting for who? You are voting for Bush?’ ”

He added, “Most of the people in the Middle East would like Obama to be president because when they hear his name, ‘Barack Hussein Obama,’ they think he’s Muslim. But I think it won’t make much difference who is president because there are many elements, not just the president, that control this country, like Congress and the media. I think the media play a big part in this country, that control the minds of the people.”

In addition to planning the show’s second season, which will involve a new cast and new locations to explore, Layalina is also planning a reverse scenario, called “American Caravan,” that will bring Americans to the Middle East.

“We’re trying to see if, as you learn more and expose people to something new, are you able to be a force for good and understanding,” said Shahabian.

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